In the era of competitive cable networks, budget constraints, and technology that promises dozens of additional channel choices to viewers, public television is fighting to maintain its niche as "an alternative service" to American households.

The industry's top officials, producers, and analysts are now searching for the most cost-efficient means to a common goal: to provide all citizens with universal access to quality programs that are non-commercial.

Among their challenges:

* To step up the production of cost-efficient national programs that appeal to viewers both in the United States and around the world.

* To expand public television's role in education, including classroom videos, on-line computer services, publications, and specialized services, such as channels for the nation's day-care centers. Local stations now serve 30 million elementary students each week and two-thirds of all colleges use PBS telecourses.

* To ready production capacities for the advent of fiber optics and other high-tech developments that will give a dramatic boost to the variety of programs and the means to transmit them.

Jennifer Lawson, PBS's executive vice president for national programming and promotional services says her industry gives "serious coverage" to news and public affairs, programs for preschoolers, and arts and culture. But she welcomes "a world of 500 channels," because it "will facilitate greater variety and distribution of public programming."

She says a PBS task force is looking into the long-term health of the industry and its ability to invest in cutting-edge technologies, such as high-definition television, direct broadcast satellites, and computer programs.

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